The powwow in Spokane’s Riverfront Park this weekend is almost commonplace for many of the dancers and their families.
For spectators, the powwow is a rare glimpse into the thriving Native American culture of today.
“There are powwows every weekend,” said Darryl Gua, of the American Indian Community Center, one of the event’s sponsors. “What sets this one apart is it’s in the middle of a downtown park, outside.”
Most powwows are on tribal lands or in indoor arenas. Dancers travel from one event to the next during the summer months.
For the last six years the Spokane Falls Northwest Indian Encampment and Pow Wow has been held in the meadow across from the Opera House in Riverfront Park. The dancing continues today at 1 p.m.
Several observers said they had never seen Native Americans in full regalia - except for on television.
“This is beautiful. And what’s great is it’s truly authentic, it’s not just a show,” said Crystal Helmsted, a Florida woman visiting friends in Spokane. “I am really impressed. And I’m learning something, too.”
Charlie Tate, of Dallas, said he was amazed the event was free and open to anyone.
“This is an incredible opportunity,” he said. “There are a lot of places and a lot of people in America who don’t even know stuff like this exists.”
Because of the diverse make-up of the audience, announcers took extra pains Saturday to explain the history and meaning of each dance.
Most of the dancers were unfazed by the onlookers.
“It really doesn’t matter how many people come to watch. What makes it a good powwow is good dancers, good singing and good drumming,” said Tracy Heemsah, from Yakima.
His daughters Raelene, age 6 and Dayna, age 3, were waiting for the girls’ jingle-dress dance. They learned to dance from their mother, Melanie Heemsah.
Like the Heemsahs, many of the families gathered at the powwow did so for more than just entertainment.
“It’s not for show. We do this to regenerate ourselves,” said Debbie Finley-Justus, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribe and crafts salesperson. “We do this to gather our elders and our children together, to teach and to learn. You never see an Indian gathering without children. We don’t leave our children at home.”
Finley-Justus, who was instrumental in organizing the event six years ago, said the public exposure is an added bonus, not the original intent.
Tribes from throughout the Northwest used to gather at the Spokane Falls every summer to fish for salmon. Although the fish no longer swim the river, the importance of social and spiritual gatherings is still critical to the culture, she said.
“We have traditionally gathered here and it’s important to continue that,” she said. “Indians have always been a very social people.”
Although the primary focus of the event is one of celebration, a moment was set aside on Saturday for grieving the death of Kendra Grantham, 16, one of the girls killed in a gang-related shooting in Spokane two weeks ago.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo